Antarctic Polar Regions | A short History of the Antarctic

Dramas, Tragedies and Exploits (Page 2)

The Great Shackleton
Sir Ernest Shackleton is another hero of legend. Attracted from an early date by great polar adventure, he was seen to accompany Scott in 1902 and to be one of those who had got closest to the South Pole. Once returned to his country, Shackleton set himself the idea of going off again; but this time he was to direct operations himself. The objective of this new voyage; to be the first to reach the South Pole. On 07 August 1907, he whose shipmates called the Boss left Torquay aboard the Nimrod, a run-down two-masted whaler that the explorer had had difficulty in buying as the funds had been so difficult to find; fifteen hand-picked men accompanied him. Gnawed with fear of not having enough food and all the time fearful of falling into a crevice, Shackleton and three of his companions were to walk for 128 days pulling their sledges (from 29 October 1908 to 05 March 1909) fighting the cold, hunger, depression and too soft snow, which often prevented their advance. They failed, half dead, some 180 kilometres from their goal.
But it was the ultimate adventure attempted by Ernest Shackleton in the Antarctic, which was to have him enter the pantheon of the great.

This time we are in 1913. As the South Pole had already been reached on two occasions (see later), he who was often called the English Bulldog had to find something else to attract financial partners. It was thus that he decided to attempt the first total crossing of the southern Continent. The project was in the image of the person: ambitious, gigantic, disproportionate…. To achieve this, the men were in effect going to have to cover a distance of 3,000 kilometres on foot and spend nearly six months under canvas in conditions that are well known! Some men were to set off from the Weddell Sea and to pass by the Pole, to meet up with, at an agreed latitude, the other team, which for its part was to set off from the Ross Sea. When on 04 August 1914, the eve of the farewells, Shackleton learnt that the order for general call-up had been given, he announced to the British Admiralty that his ships, men and equipment were at his country's disposal. "No question", was in substance the reply of the telegram sent by Winston Churchill. "The scientific and geographic companies supporting your expedition want to see you set off".

The ship Endurance deserves a moment of mention; this ship was nothing other, in effect, than the polar sailboat, the Polaris, whose plans had been imagined and designed by Adrien de Gerlache to conduct cruises in the waters of the Great North but which, in view of the vogue of Antarctic expeditions, had been the envy of explorers before even the first lucky tourists embarked upon it. It was thus that Shackleton, who had the highest esteem for his friend Adrien de Gerlache, decided to buy the ship and asked him to refurbish it for his expedition. Conveyed from Norway to the London docks by Gerlache, the Endurance left Plymouth on 08 August. Two months later, the support crew was to reach Hobart in Tasmania to embark on the Aurora and set sail for the Ross Sea.

Having set off to achieve the greatest ski-trek ever undertaken until then in the Antarctic, Shackleton's men were not even to set foot on the continent. On 20 January, after having forced a path through the pack ice of the Weddell Sea only with the greatest difficulty, the Endurance was blocked in the ice at 76° latitude South.

They had therefore to prepare for a long winter. There was no question, in effect, of heading South because nobody knew the exact distance of the ship from the continent; they were also too far from Paulet Island, the first known land positioned more than 300 miles to the West which could offer them food and shelter. Emerging from the winter, Shackleton's men thought that the Calvary was over, and when the first ice broke up, they tried for weeks to free the Three-Master. Without success. Shackleton then took the decision to abandon the Endurance which was being increasingly ill-treated by the ice. On 21 November, when the Three-Master already had a part of its hull buried in the ice floe, the last visible part of the ship sank into the Weddell Sea. As the agony had latest for than a month, the crew had had plenty of time to disembark the necessary equipment for survival on a piece of the ice floe - a floating ice cube, as the explorer calls it in his book 'The Odyssey of the Endurance, The First Attempt To Cross The Antarctic'. The only reasonable solution, to get to the nearest island at any cost. For three months, Shackleton and his men were to float on a frozen ocean and haul three canoes across thick wet snow, sometimes having to jump from one piece of the ice floe to another.

During these 100 days, Shackleton and his men lived a genuine hell. With the epic of Scott, these months spent on the ice floe to regain terra firma, were considered as the most heroic pages of polar conquest. Their hunger was such that, if the cook was unfortunate enough to leave a few pieces of pemmican lying about, the men fell on them to devour them. One night, a crack suddenly widened beneath one of the expedition tents and Shackleton was obliged to rescue a man who, still in his sleeping bag, and blissfully unaware of everything, was in the process of floating between two "ice cubes"!
On 10 April, seeing channels of free water opening up around them, they had no choice but to embark man and material in the boats and to head westwards. To quench their thirst, which, as days went by became unbearable, the survivors sucked seal blood. On 15 April, Elephant Island to the North of the Antarctic Peninsula came into view! For the sailors who had not set foot on land for sixteen months, landing on this piece of virgin land was euphoric. They knew however that the island was lifeless and that to survive, they would have had either to await for rescue on the spot or embark again on the three boats and navigate as well as the could towards South Georgia, which was 1,480 kilometres away! If they were to remain on the island, they would all die.

To have a clearer picture of what this adventure represented, one should realise that the day when Shackleton and six of his best men embarked on the James Caird boat with a month of rations on board (24 April 1916), they were going to have to navigate in a nutshell (the boat was barely six meters long) in one of the most terrible seas in the world, be tossed about by gigantic waves and endure temperatures of -20 to -30°! No matter; the navigational talents of a certain Worsley worked wonders and the sails, even though they were frozen, drove the boat forward by more than 60 miles per day, despite the terrible winds and the enormous waves, which, each time, brought the crew out into a cold sweat. 'Another of our misfortunes', wrote Shackleton, 'came from the rubbing of wet clothes against our legs. Our inside-thighs were nothing but open wounds. And a tube of Vaseline found in the first aid box would not go far in relieving our pain, intensified by the biting of the salt water. Whenever we happened to nod off, a new pain or a new effort that had to be made rapidly brought us back to reality. My own fate was aggravated by an advanced attack of sciatica, which had started on the ice floe several months earlier….'
But just as it was written that Nordenskjöld's men could extract themselves, Shackleton's team, it too, was to survive. On 09 May, fifteen days after leaving Elephant Island, when the provisions aboard the James Caird were coming to an end, South Georgia suddenly came into view!
However, Shackleton and his two companions still needed a great deal more courage to cover the 30 kilometres of icy mountains and glaciers between the beach where they had disembarked in an emergency and Stromness, the only whaling station established on the island. In mid journey even Shackleton thought that all was lost, when, blocked by a waterfall surrounded by uncrossable ice cliffs, they were obliged to cross it beneath the frozen water. Hardly surprising that the boys at the station who were the first to see the three survivors arrive on the wharf set off in full flight, thinking that the island was inhabited by monsters! One of the first questions put by Shackleton to the station manager concerned the war. 'The war is not over', he replied, there are millions of people being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad'.
That same evening, a ship left the wharf to go in search of the three men that had remained on the beach on the other side of the island and, the next day, a whaler left Stromness with Shackleton and his men to rescue the men of the Endurance who had remained, for their part, snuggled up beneath their boats on Elephant Island; to make matters worse, because of pack-ice that was full and a purse that was too empty, they had to try again four times, and four times appeal to the generosity of the Argentinians to change the ship, finally to arrive in view of the camp on 30 August. There, it was miraculous; although weakened, unkempt, psychologically distressed, ill and obviously thin, the 22 men were all safe and sound! From the 5,000 candidates that had volunteered for enrolment in the expedition, Shackleton had indeed chosen the best…

14 December 1911 and 17 January 1912 : More Drama than Victory

Who would be the first to the South Pole: Amundsen or Scott? Nobody was asking that particular question at the time. Because, when the Norwegian left the port of Oslo aboard the Fram (the ship used by the explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, at the time of his drifting on the Arctic pack ice in 1893), nobody yet knew, not even the crew, that instead of going as envisaged towards Greenland and Siberia, they were in fact heading for the Antarctic with the intention of being the first men to reach the South Pole. It was only several weeks after leaving the Madeira point of call, 09 September 1910, that his brother to whom he had entrusted his secret mail, could finally send the letter to London and let the world know of the great news. It was with stupefaction that Scott learnt of the telegram when his ship, the Terra Nova, stopped over at Melbourne: 'We kindly inform you that the Fram is going to Antarctica. Amundsen'.

Follow on this map the comparative
progressions of Amundsen and Scott

The disappointment was all the greater because, several months after having set up their base at Cape Evans (Ross Sea), one of their forward teams, which was on an exploratory mission in King Edward VII Land, perceived, far away, the Fram anchored in the Bay of Whales! Not only was Amundsen attempting the pole at the same time as he was but he too had chosen the Ross Ice Shelf as the landing point for establishing his base camp. And, greater misfortune still, his rival already had several days advance on him, his camp being, by chance, about 100 kilometres further south than the Cape Evans base!
For the two teams, the four winter months of 1911 were going to be devoted to meticulous preparation for the great departure. In Amundsen's team, they were frantically struggling in any way that they could to get rid of any superfluous weight. The expedition's carpenter planed down the components of the sledges to a maximum and made skis. In a make-piece shelter located outside their small house, they also transformed the tents in order to make them lighter. On Scott's side there was also a host of tasks of all kinds that occupied the English during the winter months - meticulous preparation of portions of rations, checking the seams of the tents, creating soles from sealskin, and other things.

There was however one essential difference between the ways that the two expeditions were getting ready. With Scott, they hardly paid any attention to weight. Amundsen, on the other hand, was to set off as light as possible, and each man would steer a sledge that would be pulled by dogs. Scott, for his part, was to use heavy equipment with motorised sledges and ponies pulling other sledges on part of the route until the assault team was to set off on its own. Amundsen had brought 86 dogs with him (of which 13 were to go to the Pole and return), the others having been slaughtered along the way in order to feed the survivors. Scott, for his part, had embarked 233 of them. Another point of view separated the two explorers: the one was counting on the ability of his animals to help him conquer the pole, the other, good Britisher that he was, preferred to wager on the courage of the men. The proof was that instead of taking dogs on the final assault, which was to take place over more than 900 kilometres, Scott and his last four companions decided to pull the sledges over the ice themselves. One might be surprised a posteriori of these tactics; but England was undergoing a full-blown identity crisis and the men that went off to defy the South Pole had to be models for their fellow citizens and could not allow themselves to forget the great moral Victorian principles that guided the British; loyalty, courage, a spirit of solidarity, sacrifice, denial, endurance of suffering and so on.
Be that as it may, in September 1911, the two men were hard at work, a few hundred kilometres from one another. Finally ready.

Why Amundsen arrived at the Pole before Scott

After organising numerous secret votes to decide the day of the great departure, Amundsen finally left his base in the Bay of Whales on 08 September with the sole objective of reaching the Pole.
Three days later, because of the intense cold and a thick fog, he turned back without even having reached his first supply depot. At that time, the Norwegian explorer decided to lighten the ski-trek still further and to set off with only four men, the two others having the mission of going off to explore Edward VII Land. This time, the weather conditions were less catastrophic; on 20 October, four sledges, each pulled by 13 huskies, headed off towards the Great South. Ahead of them there stretched 15,000 unknown kilometres as the crow flies that they had decided to signpost with snowmen every 100 kilometres so that they could more easily recognise the return itinerary. Two weeks later, they reached the last stockpile of rations without let or hindrance, and rested there for 48 hours. The ski-trek was light and the men were sometimes progressing more than 50 kilometres a day! When they had arrived at the foot of the mountain chain that divides the Antarctic in two, they only had another 600 kilometres to cover. The crossing of the Axel Heiberg glacier, which ascends toward the continental plateau at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters, was accomplished in less than a week. At the top, they slaughtered the dogs that were no longer necessary and the march was resumed, despite temperatures that were dropping from day to day and the blizzard that had started to rage again.
On 08 December, they passed the southernmost record established by Shackleton in 1909 (88°23' South) and were then only 180 kilometres from their goal. Six days later, victory. Their hands frozen, their bodies bruised but transcended by the exploit, they set up a tent inside which Amundsen left a message for Scott and his men.

On 07 March, 1912, after a month-long sea-crossing almost without incident, the Fram arrived in Tasmania; the explorer then sent a cable to his brother asking him to let the entire world know of the great news; the Norwegians had beaten the English by arriving at the South Pole first!
At the same time, March 1912, the worst had not yet arrived for Scott's men. But the expedition had been going wrong for several weeks already. It had been nothing but a chapter of unfortunate accidents.
There was first of all the tactical choice that was mentioned earlier. From the beginning, Scott had opted for a heavy ski-trek. When he left Cape Evans on 01 November 1911, it was a caravan of more than 50 kilometres long that stretched across the ice; the sledges weighed 300 kilograms each. Furthermore, they were pulled by ponies that were getting stuck in the snow up to their underbellies. As they were slowing the expedition down it was decided to slaughter them along the way. There then followed technical setbacks; the air-cooling system of the motorised sledges was not working properly; it was causing numerous breakdowns and inevitable delays. The atmospheric conditions, for their part, were not favourable either for the English explorers; for four days, a frightening gale had been blowing over the expedition making all progress impossible. After which a short period of thaw had made the ground soft and almost impassable. In the first 19 days the caravan had only covered 291 kilometres, or an average of about 15 kilometres a day.

Before attacking the glacier that gave access to the plateau, Scott decided to send the dogs back to base, thereby evidencing a blind obstinacy with consequences that were to be fatal. On 03 January 1912, 65 days after their departure, with the men having to pull the sledges themselves, the team was still 273 kilometres from its goal - Amundsen, for his part, had taken 51 days to cover the same distance! Scott then took the decision to send three men back to base. They were now no more than five to make the final assault on the Pole: Robert Falcon Scott, Birdie Bowers, Titus Oates, Edgar Evans and Bill Wilson. Despite the various misfortunes, the five men were content finally to be alone and to do battle with the danger. But a hammer blow was going to put a brake on the explorer's new ardour; several days before reaching the top of the mountain chain, they saw the tracks of Amunden's sledges. But even if that did not prove that the Norwegian had reached the Pole, the discovery was difficult to digest. To give up so close to the goal? The men were not minded to. But one can imagine the Englishmen's disappointment on discovering that, on 17 January, after 78 days of progressing over a more than difficult terrain, the Union Jack would not be the first flag to fly at the South Pole. In this saga that was to last for more than 10 years, Scott had arrived 44 days after his Norwegian rival…
In the tent, the expedition leader discovered, in addition to the letter that Amundsen had written to him and an envelope addressed to the King of Norway, some spare clothes and a sextant. Two days later, it was five frustrated men who set off on the return journey. More than 1,500 kilometres of inhuman suffering with the unbearable thought in their heads that the failure, whatever the welcome they received in England, would in perpetuity be stronger than victory. Another race against time had begun. The nightmare was beginning; it was to be a slow agony…
Edgar Evans was the first to be a victim - of scurvy and frostbite. When they reached the first stockpile, it was the turn of Titus Oates to see his feet turn black from gangrene. On 17 February, Evans died in his sleep; one month later, Oates went out of the tent like a zombie. Despite the blizzard that was blowing, he said to his comrades that he was going for a little walk. They were never to see him again. On 17 March, Scott and the two other survivors were approaching the last stockpile of rations; no more than 20 or so short kilometres to cover. But a storm arose and prevented their advance; once again, the men were blocked. The next day, they ran out of fuel. They had practically no more rations either; the trio prepared themselves for the inevitable.
Perhaps they had in mind, beyond the exploit, beyond the failure, the idea that it was preferable for their lives to end with an heroic act of which future generations could be proud. Scott, Wilson and Bowers set up the tent that was to be their shroud one last time; they knew however that they were only 180 kilometres away from Cape Evans !
Eight months later, a patrol coming from the winter quarters in search for the missing men enabled a reconstruction of the last moments of their lives; as Wilson and Bowers were lying quietly in their sleeping bags and the leader was stretched out on top of his, history deduced that Scott died last and, before expiring in turn, he had had the time and the delicacy to take care of his comrades without having had the strength to get back into what could have protected him from the cold for a few moments longer.

To be continued next page (page 3)